Diet and Recovery Key to Winning Huge Stage Races

Doug Pensinger/ Getty Images

[Editor's Note: This article was originally written during the 2003 Tour de France.]

MARSEILLE, France (AP) -- Lance Armstrong could win the Tour de France in his sleep. More specifically, the quality and amount of sleep he gets, and what he does before getting in bed, are the keys to winning.

Every moment counts from the first day to the last in a stage race, and when you think about it, only a small percentage of that time is actually spent on the bike.


What riders do to recover between the daily road races of the Tour de France has a huge impact on their performance. Racing a bicycle between five and seven hours through the July heat drains the body of energy, fluids, and electrolytes.

Looking at riders after long stages can be like seeing someone near death. Their eyes are vacant and sunken into their heads; they're pale, shaking, and sometimes incoherent.

Yet less than 24 hours later, these same men are charging up mountain passes with incredible power.

Recovery begins on the bike. Riders eat and drink right from the beginning of each stage and consume 300 to 400-plus calories per hour from sandwiches, pastries, Powerbars, and PowerGels.

A portion of these calories also comes from sports drinks. With the heat this year [as hot as 115 degrees F], riders are going through 10 or more bottles of fluid for five hours on the bike.

About half the bottles contain a carbohydrate-based sports drink, while the rest are plain water. Lance often rides with one bottle containing Powerade and one with just water so he can maintain his energy levels, electrolyte levels, and stay hydrated during the stages.

Immediately after the stage, each rider is handed more food and bottles. These post-stage bottles often have a recovery-specific sports drink in them because the body is most efficient at replenishing carbohydrate stores in the first 60 minutes after exercise.

To further capitalize on this crucial window of time, many riders consume drinks that have a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. The protein in the drink increases the rate at which muscles absorb carbohydrate from the bloodstream, allowing riders to pack in the maximum amount their muscles can hold.

The recovery process doesn't end with just a few bottles. The team soigneurs (combination masseur, physical therapist, personal assistant) are among the most important members of the riders' support team. They work on each rider every night and are gurus when it comes to revitalizing a weary or injured cyclist and keeping him in the race.


One of the keys to being successful in a three-week stage race is never letting yourself get behind in calories or hydration. To accomplish this goal, riders consume between 6,000 and 7,000 calories a day, sometimes more on particularly long and hard days.

Lance tries to get 70 percent of his daily calories from carbohydrate, 15 percent from fat, and 15 percent from protein.

Dinner after the stage and breakfast the next morning are also important for recovery and for supplying the energy necessary for racing.

Dinner is usually rich in carbohydrate and protein, with rice, pasta, potatoes, chicken, eggs, and fruit. Breakfast is many of the same foods, and they add yogurt and cereal to the mix.

Tour de France stages don't start until late morning or early afternoon, so the riders get up and eat breakfast, and then about three hours before the start they eat a meal that is almost entirely carbohydrate.

It is critical to eat and drink regularly on the bike because your body can only store 1,600 to 1,800 calories of carbohydrate energy in your muscles and liver. While aerobic athletes use a mixture of carbohydrates, fat and protein for energy; carbohydrate is the primary fuel source for endurance performance.

When a rider runs out of carbohydrate, he "bonks" or hits the wall. Not only is he unable to keep up with the competition, his mind is cloudy and he's nauseous.

Bonking affects muscles, but it also affects the central nervous system because the brain runs on carbohydrate and can't burn fat or protein on its own.

No matter when you run into a Tour de France rider, he's sure to have food or a water bottle with him. Riders refer to this constant snacking as "grazing," but no matter how much they manage to eat during the Tour de France, everyone who finishes will ride into Paris at least a few pounds lighter than when they started.

Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong's coach since 1990 and has guided him to four consecutive Tour de France titles. Elected to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in May, he is also the author of The Ultimate Ride.

On the Net:

Related Articles:

      ? Racing and Training Recovery

      ? Determining Your Race Recovery Time

      ? Multi-day Race Preparation and Care

Discuss This Article